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(contracted with Oxford University Press, Warburg series)

Rabelais remains the Renaissance poet of the belly. Pregnancies and births, urination and excretion punctuate the adventures of his giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. His style fits those themes. According to settled views among critics, the Rabelaisian belly and its related style signal either the comic crowning of our lower regions in the upside-down world of carnivalesque fiction, or humanist satire wielded against diseased body-politics: old universities, the Church. The Rabelaisian belly is supposedly the lowly opposite to the head, the comic other of human reason, the satirical reminder of its limits.

And yet, from Rabelais’s medical perspective on ingenuity, the belly is the head. In medicine, ingenuity is embodied thinking: one’s wit arises from physiological processes originating in the belly, that is, from one’s inborn nature, but also fuelled by the environment (in particular, air). These same processes operate when we breathe, digest and procreate: man is not the rational animal, but the ingenious one. Invention travels from the belly to the brain. I study this trajectory with two aims:

The first is an intellectual history of ingenuity in the early sixteenth century. How do Renaissance discourses on ingenuity feature in Rabelais’s works? Rabelais does not merely echo the claims that rhetoric, but also mechanics, architecture and art made about the human ability to invent: he grounds these in a specifically medical account of ingenuity. For Rabelais the physician, what happens in us when we learn, imagine and discover is the physiological production of invention.

My second objective is a literary study of Rabelais’s style as ingenious. How does his fiction manipulate Renaissance discourses on ingenuity? His prose is deemed earthly because he roots these discourses in bodily processes by making allegories, metaphors and etymologies literal; yet the erudite game of allusion involved is a virtuoso display of wit. I will therefore study the bawdy, the crass, the downright nonsensical in his fictions: the thematic omnipresence of bodily waste, the sudden shifts in register and narrative prompted by obscene vocabulary and grotesque imagery. I will show that these features are literary reflections on the physiological production of wit and performances of it.